«Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, whose memory we honour to-day, was described on his father’s side from a distinguished and ennobled Huguenot family, the ...»
Trinity College Dublin
Trinity Monday 13th June 1949
Jospeh Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873)
By T. S. C. Dagg, M.A.
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, whose memory we honour to-day, was described on his father’s
side from a distinguished and ennobled Huguenot family, the Le Fanus of Caen, in
Normandy, who, on the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, had been deprived of their estates
and had settled in England. It is estimated that 600,000 Huguenots fled from France to escape the persecution which, in varying degrees of intensity, they suffered from the Middle of the 16th to the middle of the 18th century. Of these about 70,000 found a home in the British Isles, and the remainder sought refuge in Switzerland, Prussia, Denmark, Sweden and other countries.
After the Revolution of 1688 great numbers of French refugees came over to Ireland, both from England and the Continent, and in 1692 the Irish Parliament passed an Act conferring on “all Protestant strangers and foreigners” complete freedom in the exercise of their religion.
Three French churches were established in Dublin, and churches also sprang up in Cork, Waterford, Carlow, Kilkenny and Portarlington. These “strangers and foreigners” threw themselves with enthusiasm into the industrial life of the country, as craftsmen, bankers, merchants and manufacturers. An unusually large proportion of belonged to the higher classes, many of whom entered the learned professions and the army; and not a few of the alumni of our University bear Huguenot names, such as La Touche, Le Fanu, Crommelin, Bouhereau, Fleury, Maturin, Saurin, Joly, Le Froy. The Huguenots who settled in Ireland have long since been absorbed in the general population, and the French churches which they established have disappeared, but few will deny that the introduction of this new and valuable racial material has been of great and lasting benefit to our country. In Dublin, the Lady Chapel of St. Patrick’s Cathedral is the only building remaining in which the Huguenots at one time held their services, and the small cemeteries in Cathedral Lane, in Peter Street, and in Merrion Row now constitute their only visible memorial.
One of the most distinguished descendants of these Huguenot colonists was Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, poet and novelist, who was born at No. 45 Lower Dominick Street, Dublin, on August 28th, 1814. He was one of the many brilliant men whom the Church of Ireland has given and continues to give, to the world, his father being the Rev. Thomas Philip Le Fanu, Curate of St. Mary’s, Dublin. His mother, a gifted and talented woman, was the daughter of Doctor William Dobbin, a Fellow of Trinity College and Rector of Finglas and St. Mary’s.
Some members of the Le Fanu family had served with distinction under William III, and our novelist’s grandfather, Joseph Le Fanu, who had previously secured an appointment as Clerk of the Coast in Ireland, had married Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s favourite sister, Alicia, from whom our novelist no doubt inherited a large share of his genius.
In May 1815 our novelist’s father was chosen by the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Whitworth, to be Chaplain and Superintendent of Morals at the Royal Hibernian Military School, in the Phoenix Park, near Chapelizod. Chapelizod was a place well calculated to kindle the imagination of a young poet, not merely because of its picturesque and romantic setting, and of its legendary associations with Tristan and Isolde, but also because of the military pageantry of which the neighbourhood was so frequently the scene. There were then about four hundred boys, sons of soldiers, at the Hibernian School, and these boys, vieing with the veterans of Waterloo, took part in each Regimental March Past in the military reviews which were held on the adjoining Fifteen Acres. The house known as the “King’s House,” famous because King William had occupied it and held his Court there after his victory at the Boyne, and because it had served as the residents of many Viceroys, including Ormond, Essex, Clarendon and Tyrconnell, was still standing in the little village. It was being used at the time as quarters for the officers of his Majesty’s Regiment of Artillery, a fact to which Le Fanu makes reference in his novel, “The House by the Churchyard.” This neighbourhood was also the scene of more than one duel, in which our novelist’s father often acted the part of peacemaker.
In 1823 the Rev. T. P. Le Fanu was promoted to the Rectory of Abington, Co. Limerick, but he remained at the Hibernian School, until he was appointed Dean of Emly in 1826, when the family went to live at Abington. Young Le Fanu was educated at home, where he was taught English and French by his father, and classics and science by a private tutor, an eccentric, elderly clergyman named Stinson. He was also given the free use of his father’s well-stocked library. At an early age he began to display remarkable talent in composition. The following lines, which he wrote when he was scarcely fifteen, show a depth of imagination and of
feeling unusual in one so young:
Oh! lovely moon, so bright and so sincere, Rolling thy silver disk so silently, Full many an ardent lover’s eye, I ween, Rests on thy warning crescent pensively;
And many an aged eye is fixed on thee That seeks to read the hidden things of fate;
And many a captive, pining to be free, Welcomes thy lustre through his prison gate, And feels while in thy beam not quite so desolate.
Le Fanu, as a boy, although strong and active, took no part in the field games and sports in which his younger brother excelled, but was of a retiring and dreamy disposition. That he had his wits about him when they were wanted, however, is shown by an anecdote told by his brother. He was habitually late for morning prayers, which greatly distressed his father, the Dean. One morning he appeared when breakfast was almost over, and his father, holding his watch in his hand, said in his severest tones, “I ask you, Joseph, I ask you seriously, is this right?” “No, sir,” said Joseph, glancing at the watch, “I’m sure it must be fast.” At Abington, where his parents were much beloved by the peasantry, who frequently sought their aid and advice, young Le Fanu had many opportunities of obtaining that intimate knowledge of the humours and tragedies displayed in his Irish stories and poem. As he himself said: “In my youth I heard a great many Irish traditions, more or less of a supernatural character, some of them very peculiar, and all, to a child at least, highly interesting.” His choice of theme for his early verse was influenced largely by his mother, who as a girl had been an enthusiastic admirer of Lord Edward Fitzgerald and other United Irishmen, and it is noteworthy that though Le Fanu was the son of a Dean of the Established Church, and though he was later the editor of a Tory newspaper, nevertheless when he wrote verse he frequently wrote like a rebel.
In October 1832 Le Fanu entered Trinity College, where he enlarged his knowledge of English literature and the classics, while at the same time he pursued his legal studies at the King’s Inns, his intention then being to practise at the Irish Bar. He also became a member of the College Historical Society, which at this period met outside the walls of the College owing to restrictions placed upon it by the Board. Among unusually gifted contemporaries Le Fanu took the highest place as a debater in the Society, and was awarded a medal for oratory.
It is interesting to note that he was elected President of the Society on the same night that Thomas Davis was elected Auditor, and that when he was unable to deliver an address at the close of the session, Davis was chosen to read a paper in his stead. On the restoration of the Society to College in 1843, Le Fanu was elected an honourary member.
Le Fanu took his B.A. degree in 1837, and a couple of years later he was called to the Bar.
His friends considered that he had high prospects as a barrister; but he never made any serious attempts to practise, and devoted himself instead to literature and journalism.
In January 1838 his first published story, “The Ghost and the Bonesetter,” appeared in the “Dublin University Magazine,” which had been founded five years earlier, and of which, in 1861, he became both owner and editor, and in this periodical most of his poems and many of his novels first saw the light. He also contributed stories to “Temple Bar,” to “All the Year Round,” and to other English magazines.
In 1839 Le Fanu purchased “The Warder,” and becoming soon afterwards proprietor of the “Evening Packet” and the “Dublin Evening Mail” he amalgamated the three journals into the “Evening Mail”,” which was issued daily. He also continued, with Isaac Butt as a colleague, to edit “The Warder” as a weekly reprint. As a journalist Le Fanu was noted for the vigour and pungency of his writing. He was always a strong advocate of the Conservative policy, but in everything that he wrote he exhibited a genuine love of his country, and a warm appreciation of its people. He took an active interest in the University Elections, and some humorous and satirical electioneering squibs came from a pen.
In 1844 he married Susan Bennett, daughter of George Bennett, Q.C., and of the marriage were born two sons and two daughters. Bennett lived at No. 18 – now number 70 – Merrion Square, and when he died he left his house to his son-in-law, and in this house most of Le Fanu’s novels were written.
Shortly after leaving college, on his brother’s suggestion that he should compose an Irish “Young Lochinvar,” Le Fanu wrote “Phaudrig Crohoore,” which is one of the best of our Irish ballads, full of fire and incident. It has been set to music by Charles Villiers Stanford as a Cantata, and is frequently performed by choral societies.
“Shamus O’Brien,” the second and more widely known of Le Fanu’s Irish ballads, is more perfect in structure and more picturesque in its scene painting. It describes, with wonderful effect, and with a familiar knowledge of scene and character, the capture, trial and escape of a hero of the Irish Rebellion in 1798. The tragic intensity of the piece is relieved by many quaint and amusing humorous touches. “Shamus O’Brien,” which, like “Phaudrig Crohoore,” is written in the Southern Irish idiom, is a capital piece for recitation, and Samuel Lover did much to popularise it both at home and in America by introducing it into his entertainments.
It has been made the subject of a fine opera by Stanford. A point which is, perhaps, worthy of note is that at the time when “Shamus O’Brien” appeared, nationalist feeling in Ireland was deeply stirred by the Young Ireland movement, and it was this movement which also inspired John Kells Ingram to compose that great battle-hymn of the people, “Who Fears to Speak of Ninety-Eight?” Le Fanu’s two longest poems, both written in his later years, “Beatrice” and “The Legend of the Glaive,” are undoubtedly his finest, full of imaginative power and dramatic conception. In “Beatrice” he has given us a verse drama packed with all the horrors of a Greek tragedy. In “The Legend of the Glaive” he weaves with rare skill into one lovely web such different materials as an old Scandinavian legend, and charming scenes from Irish peasant life, throwing over all a most enchanting supernatural glamour. Alfred Percival Graves, in his introduction to the Poems of Le Fanu writes: “The lurid terror of these narratives is happily relieved by interludes of such haunting beauty of colour and sound, that we cannot but lament the lateness of this discovery of his highest artistic self. Indeed our literature can ill afford to lose lyrical drama with such a stamp of appalling power as is impressed on “Beatrice” or oldworld idylls so full of Gaelic glamour as “The Legend of the Glaive”.
But although these two are undoubtedly Le Fanu’s best poetical compositions, it is as the author of “Shamus O’Brien” and “Phaudrig Crohoore” that he will probably be remembered chiefly by Irishmen. These place him in a unique position amongst the writers of Irish ballad poetry, and will ever be reckoned with the songs
They appeal to us because of the truthfulness, born of association and sympathy, with which he depicts the character and habits of the Southern Irish peasant, and because of the skill with which in lines like
he reconstructs for us the country so well known to him and so well loved by us.
It is, however, as a novelist that Le Fanu is best known to the reading public. That he was a born story-teller is apparent from the short stories which he contributed to the “Dublin University Magazine,” and which were afterwards published as the “Purcell and which were afterwards published as the ‘Purcell Papers.’ In many of these he first displays those wonderful powers over the mysterious, the grotesque and the horrible which are such characteristics of his novels, and he also shows considerable versatility in the invention of plot and the portrayal of character. His short stories of Irish peasant life belong to another class. In such tales as “The Ghost and the Bonesetter,” “The Quare Gandher,” “Jim Sullivan’s Adventures in the Big Show” and “Billy Malowney’s Taste of Love and Glory,” he provides us with most amusing pictures of the habits and superstitions of the peasantry.
Le Fanu’s first excursion into the wider domain of fiction was the publication in 1845, when he was thirty years of age, of “The Cock and Anchor,” a novel in which he depicts the life of old Dublin with much colour and fidelity. The book shows great narrative power, and is full of interesting scenes and exciting incidents. A certain want of unity, however, and a pervading spirit of gloom, detract somewhat from its merits. It is still, nevertheless, one of his most popular novels, especially with lovers of old Dublin.